Touring the Z370 platform with Gigabyte's Z370 Aorus Gaming 7 motherboard
Perhaps with the extremely modest changes in Z370 in mind, motherboard makers are offering their highest-end Z370 boards for relatively sedate prices. I got Gigabyte's Z370 Aorus Gaming 7 in the TR labs ahead of the arrival of our Coffee Lake chips, and I performed all of my Core i7-8700K testing with it for both stock and overclocked numbers. This board is the highest-end model in Gigabyte's Z370 lineup so far, and it's served me admirably over the past few days. Despite being the fanciest board of the Aorus bunch, this mobo only carries a $250 price tag.
For the money, buyers get a top-end board almost as fully-featured as any from Gigabyte's under-$300 Z270 lineup. The most prominent feature of the Gaming 7 is RGB LEDs, though, and there are lots of 'em. All three primary PCIe slots are illuminated with multicolor goodness, and the blinkenlights also nestle into the power circuitry, I/O shroud, and even the VRM and chipset heatsinks themselves. A lighting strip on the right edge of the board completes the visual statement. These various lighting zones should be individually tweakable through Gigabyte's RGB Fusion Windows software, although a handy firmware function allows for basic setup if your tastes run more to the monochrome.
The Gaming 7 is also the most extreme exponent of Gigabyte's Z370 styling trends. Instead of the plain white and black shrouding that we saw on the company's Z270 boards, the Z370 Gaming 7 has a sort of mecha- or cyberpunk-inspired style that manifests as elaborate metal and metal-look accents all over the I/O shroud and heatsinks. Although I quite liked Gigabyte's simple and clean design language in the Z270 generation, this look is distinctive without evoking medieval torture devices or occult rituals. It should stand out in any windowed case.
This board isn't all about flash, though. To supply the necessary juice to Coffee Lake CPUs, Gigabyte taps a 10-phase power design incorporating VRM and PWM control circuitry from Intersil. This VRM array is paired with what Gigabyte calls "server-level chokes," and the units so employed do appear similar to some of the higher-end components we've seen on the company's X99 boards in the past. While I can't comment in depth on the specific components involved, this setup does appear more than ready to supply the juice the i7-8700K needs to reach its maximum potential.
Like many high-end Z270 boards, the Z370 Gaming 7 offers three PCIe x16 slots and three PCIe x1 slots, all meeting the PCIe 3.0 standard. Two of these are powered by the CPU's 16 lanes of connectivity. The topmost x16 slot gets 16 lanes from the CPU with one graphics card installed. Deploy a second card in the middle x16 slot, and the Gaming 7 splits those lanes into a pair of x8 channels. The third x16 slot gets four PCIe lanes from the Z370 chipset, and each PCIe x1 slot gets a lane from the PCH, as well.
For PCIe storage devices, the Gaming 7 has a whopping three M.2 slots, the topmost of which sits above the first PCIe x16 slot for better thermal resilience against the graphics card that will presumably sit directly below. The first slot is also protected by a handsome M.2 heatsink with a pre-applied thermal pad.
Since Z370 is simply an evolution of Z270, loading up the board with expansion cards and storage devices could result in some resource-sharing conflicts. The first two PCIe x1 slots get a single lane from the chipset at all times, but the third shares its bandwidth with SATA port 0. Plug an expansion card into that slot, and SATA port 0 goes dark, and vice versa. Install a PCIe or SATA storage device in M2M_32G, the first M.2 slot, and SATA ports 4 and 5 turn off. M2A_32G, the middle M.2 slot, gets four PCIe lanes for M.2 devices at all times, but installing a SATA device in it will disable port 0, as well. Finally, M2P_32G (the bottom M.2 slot of the bunch) shares four lanes of PCIe with the bottom-most PCIe x16 slot. Install a device in one slot or the other, and its unused counterpart will go dark.
Those resource conflicts are a bit frustrating on a motherboard this expensive when we consider that the board only has six SATA ports to work with. Use an NVMe SSD in the first slot as your system's boot device, and you immediately lose two of these ports to lane-sharing. It's a bit bemusing that Gigabyte didn't flip the allocation of lanes for M2M_32G and M2A_32G when it was laying out the board, considering that the middle slot doesn't ever conflict with SATA devices with an NVMe SSD installed. You can move the M.2 heatsink to this second slot, at least, but then you're subjecting your M.2 device to the jet blast of the PC's graphics card. This is a decidedly sub-optimal arrangement for the storage-hungry.
On the audio front, Gigabyte employs its usual arrangement of Nichicon and Wima capacitors in the board's analog audio path. The codec that feeds this array is Realtek's now-ubiquitous S1220 codec, complemented by an ESS Sabre 9018Q2C DAC. This chain is claimed to be good for an analog SNR of 121 dB, or on par with the claimed specs for many high-end onboard setups. We'll delve into this more when I review the Gaming 7 in depth, but my listening experiences on this board were as pleasant as any high-end motherboard's of late. Nothing quite touches the Z270X-Gaming 8's Creative ZxRi setup, though.
The Z270X-Gaming 7 offers plenty of possibilities for peripheral I/O. All of the back panel's USB ports are of the 3.0 standard at a minimum. The leftmost yellow ports offer Gigabyte's DAC-Up voltage-control feature, which purports to provide more juice to power-hungry devices on long cable runs if it's needed. Although it's unlikely they'll be used on such a high-end board, Gigabyte offers an HDMI 1.4 jack and a DisplayPort 1.2 connector for Coffee Lake's integrated graphics processor, as well. The lack of a separate converter chip for HDMI 2.0 means the HDMI port only supports 4096x2160 at a maximum, and only then at 30 Hz. Those looking for tolerable IGP output probably want to use the DisplayPort, which can handle 4096x2304 displays at 60 Hz.
The two blue USB 3.0 ports to the right of the gold-plated display outs draw their connectivity from the Z370 PCH. The USB 3.1 Gen 2 Type-C connector and the red Type-A port both draw connectivity from ASMedia's latest ASM3142 USB 3.1 controller. Gigabyte backs this chip with two lanes of PCIe 3.0 from the chipset for a potential 16 GT/s of bandwidth, a reserve that might come in handy when transferring lots of bits over both ports at once. Above the Type-C port, we get a Killer Gigabit Ethernet jack powered by the company's E2500 controller. If you still have a thing against Killer for some reason, Gigabyte accommodates with an Intel controller behind the second Gigabit Ethernet jack. The final USB 3.0 port also comes from the Z370 PCH.
Perhaps because of the power-draw potential of a Coffee Lake chip, Gigabyte includes a tiny fan for active VRM cooling duties under the I/O shroud. This tiny fan joins similar cooling approaches from Asus on its X399 boards, and I'm not really a fan. Tiny fans like this have the potential to completely spoil the noise characteristics of a system, and I feel like more effective heatsinks with greater surface area and less decorative bric-a-brac would be a more effective choice. That said, I never heard the fan spin up in my testing, so it's likely one would have to push the Gaming 7's power delivery subsystem to true extremes to get it to run.
Like Z270 boards, the Gaming 7 offers four DIMM slots with support for up to 64GB of RAM. Coffee Lake ups the base DDR4 speed to 2666 MT/s for JEDEC RAM, but the Gaming 7 should offer support for much higher speeds through XMP and manual tweaking. Gigabyte's QVL offers options at instane speeds up to 4166 MT/s. I got my G.Skill DDR4-3600 sticks running on the board without a hitch simply by flipping on the XMP profile in the firmware.
I have more to talk about with the Gaming 7 in my full review, but Gigabyte's early firmware seems well-baked, and the company slowly continues to address some of my biggest nitpicks with the interface. I had no issues with this board's performance while gathering numbers for our review, and overclocking the i7-8700K manually was swift and effective on the Gaming 7. If you want a top-end Z370 board to toy with, this one is a fine choice already.